Read This Week’s Passage: 2 Corinthians 2:14–4:6
Historical or Experiential Matters
We saw in our last lesson’s study that when the New Testament discusses the old and new covenants, it often does so by presenting a series of contrasting characteristics showing how starkly different are the two covenants. In Galatians 4:21–5:1, Paul’s discussion of “the two covenants,” he characterized the old covenant as a covenant of “the flesh” and “slavery,” resulting in its adherents being disinherited from eternal life! These characterizations could not possibly fit the historical old covenant that God gave His people at Sinai, or that covenant would have been an anti-gospel covenant, upending the Old Testament’s entire representation of that covenant as we have studied it in the previous lessons of this series. Nor could Paul’s contrasting list of new-covenant characterizations apply exclusively to the historical new covenant unveiled after Jesus came in history, or else, not until after Jesus came in history could anyone have been “born according to the Spirit” (v. 29, NKJV) and freed from slavery, or have become an inheritor of the kingdom God prepared for the saved.
However, Paul’s contrasting characteristics of the two covenants in Galatians 4:21–5:1 perfectly describe opposite ways that people have responded to God’s gospel-laden historical covenants. His new-covenant characterizations perfectly describe a saving response to the gospel, resulting in eternal life, and his characterizations of the old covenant perfectly describe the opposite response that leads to death. When Jesus came in history, a new historical covenant resulted; when He comes into someone’s life experientially at conversion, a new covenant experience results no matter when they lived in history.
Learning to distinguish the difference between the historical old and new covenants and the experiential old and new covenants will enable us to understand why the New Testament seems at times to be attacking, or warning against, any association with the old covenant and its law. It will resolve the tension, the apparent conflicts, described in the Introduction to this series (and summarized in our Lesson 3 inTro) between conflicting things that Scripture appears to be teaching about God’s covenants and the law.
In our passage for this lesson, Paul mentions the “new covenant” and “old covenant” by name and once again presents a contrasting list that characterizes how they are opposed to each other and lead to opposite eternal destinies. To begin with, focus on 2 Corinthians 3:3–18 and see how many contrasts you can find that Paul lists between the old and new covenants. In inGest and inTerpret, we will once again explore the significance of these contrasts to identify which covenants Paul is referring to primarily and discuss why it matters that we know!